Posts tagged sardines

Memories of Essaouira

During our honeymoon in Morocco, Jim and I spent a few days in the seaside town of Essaouira. We strolled the narrow stone streets overlooking the ocean and relaxed on the beach, breathing in the salt air with each step. One hot, sunny day at lunchtime, we walked down to the port and seated ourselves at one of the myriad fish stands right by the water. Seagulls swarmed overhead, swooping down every so often to investigate the fresh seafood that local fishermen unloaded from their boats.

At the time, Jim and I didn’t eat fish often. But there was no way we could avoid it in Essaouira, and neither did we want to. Maybe we were still giddy from our wedding or something, I’m not sure. Anyway, we ordered a big platter of straight-from-the-sea, grilled sardines for lunch. Using our hands, we picked our way past the charred, salty skin and spindly bones to the cleanest, freshest meat we had ever tasted. Four years later, we still talk about about that lunch and its effect on us.

sardines_cooking

This past weekend we tried to recreate that meal—or at least the spirit of it—in a very different setting. We pulled our grill pan out from under the sink, heated it through, and grilled 2 pounds of barely seasoned sardines for dinner. A Brooklyn apartment might seem a shabby substitute for an exotic African port, but it didn’t hinder us at all. After cooking for just a couple of minutes on each side, the skin of the shimmery fish was transformed into a crackly coating, and our apartment was quickly infused with salty scents of the sea. (That’s my nice way of saying it smelled like fish.)

I don’t know why it took us four years to cook sardines at home, especially when there are so many benefits to eating them. Sardines are a highly sustainable fish source, which at least puts my mind at ease in terms of purchasing and eating them. And in addition to being a great source of omega-3s, they are low in all those scary contaminants I keep reading about. These small, oily fish surprisingly pack a big nutritional punch.

sardines_cooked

But let’s not forget how good they taste. I served ours atop a bed of rice, with some fresh lemon wedges on the side. The crisp skin was a perfect foil to the fresh, flaky meat hidden within. Even though we were miles away from Morocco, Jim and I were transported there for just a moment, as we once again used our hands to pick past the tiny bones towards the light, clean flesh of the sardines. Fishy apartment aside, it was a great trip.

Recipe for Indoor Grilled Sardines (adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe in the Recipes for Health section of the New York Times)

  • 2 pounds of cleaned sardines
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • sea salt
  • pepper
  • lemon wedges

Heat a grill pan over medium heat, until it is very hot. While the pan is heating, rinse the sardines, and dry them with paper towels. Toss with olive oil, and season them generously with salt and pepper.

When the grill is ready, place the sardines on it. Grill for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a platter using tongs and serve with lemon wedges. Serves 2. Enjoy!

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Dinner at Avec

sardines2

Yay, Top Chef is back! Last year I watched the entire season from start to finish, and I was totally hooked. So I found it appropriate that the weekend before the newest round of this culinary competition was set to begin, Jim and I took a quick trip to Chicago, where last season was filmed. We even had dinner at Avec, Chef Koren Grieveson’s Mediterranean-inspired wine bar and the more casual cousin of neighboring restaurant Blackbird. Chef Grieveson was a guest judge on Top Chef last year. (See, I told you I was hooked.)

I have to admit, I hadn’t read much about the restaurant before we jumped in a cab and sped over from our hotel. But once I started recognizing some of the faces behind the bar and made the Top Chef connection, I was even more excited about our newest dining adventure. We started with a drink at the long, stainless steel bar while waiting for seats at one of the restaurant’s communal tables. (Avec does not take reservations.) After ordering from the lengthy wine list, we observed the bustling scene and listened in astonishment to the noise emitted from the room. Top Chef notoriety aside, Avec hosted one of the most festive—and loud—crowds in town. 

After about half an hour, Jim and I were led through the narrow, blond-wood dining room to a table near the back of the restaurant, close to a glinting wall of green wine bottles. As our neighbors settled in around us, we perused the menu, which was divided into “small” and “large” plates. I suddenly understood the use of the word avec—which means with in French—as the name of the restaurant: As the menu made clear, this was food to be shared and experienced with other people. 

lemonsausage

We ordered some meaty house-marinated olives to start our meal ($5). Next, piles of deliciously oily, house-pickled sardines with shaved apples, red onion, radish sprouts, and fresh parsley tumbled over thick slices of buttery bread ($12). The contrasting interplay of crisp fruits and vegetables with the tender, salty fish created a dish that Jim is still raving about. Without a doubt, it would have won any Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef.

But the preserved lemon sausage with fresh kidney beans, one of Avec’s daily specials, was also a strong contender that evening ($8). Lemony bits of crumbled meat were gently tempered by the smooth beans, and Jim and I scooped spoonfuls onto our plates, enjoying the textural jumble of flavors. Perhaps the ultimate champion of the night was the “deluxe” focaccia, a closed pizza-like dish oozing with warm taleggio cheese, fresh herbs, and musky truffle oil ($14.50). Chef Grieveson would never lose an Elimination Challenge, not with this decadent focaccia.

focaccia

As Jim and I ate our meal, we noticed our neighbors striking up a conversation with each other. Soon these once-separate parties were sharing dishes such as the chorizo-stuffed dates and buying each other shots of limoncello. The jovial spirit of Avec is infectious, and makes friends out of strangers. Jim and I were so stuffed, we didn’t have room for dessert, but we left feeling thrilled with our dining experience. I can’t wait to return and try more dishes from the menu, as those chorizo-stuffed dates and the house-cured salumi are still calling to me. I’m certain that a second visit to Avec would never feel like a repeat of Top Chef—or any other show for that matter.

Avec, 615 West Randolph Street, Chicago 60661 T: 312-377-2002

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